Back in January we were fortunate enough to spend a weekend in Paris, interviewing some of the biggest names in French cinema (Isabelle Huppert FTW) – but none were quite as enjoyable to meet than Guillaume Gallienne. “Do you have a spare fag?” he asked when I walked in – in a near-perfect English accent I had perceived to be a piss-take, mimicking my dialect ahead of our time together. But it wasn’t, for Gallienne is a classically trained theatre act-or – part of La Comédie Francaise – who even spent time living in Britain. His English, at times, was even better than mine.
“I was in England between the ages 13-16, I took my O-Levels there in a boarding school in Hampshire,” he said. “I had English nannies before when I was young. One of them forbid me from running in the rain. Very strange. She found it very common, she was such a snob, my God.”
It’s a nation the talented French actor still holds close to his heart – and one he feels is more in line with his own comic sensibilities.
“There’s still a little acceptance of eccentricity in England that we’ve lost in France. I’m not even sure if we’ve ever had it. You have this thing, a pleasure of the moment, which you definitely don’t have in your food so you have to find it somewhere, and I think you manage very well. You still have wit. I mean, Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary is hilarious. It’s becoming a bit Latin, you should be careful.”
Gallienne admitted to us he is even hoping to move back to the UK to seek roles, fearing that his distinctive style can often be lost on French audiences.
“I love understatement, I adore that wit, and sometimes it’s badly taken by the French because they think it’s just mean. My wife has it, my mother definitely, my little brother – there are people I can practise it with, but it just doesn’t really work in France. The language has a sharpness that we don’t have in French, it’s very tonic in English, it sounds good.”
“That said, I don’t love everything about the English sense of humour, sometimes I find it very vulgar. But it’s probably a reaction to political correctness and that I quite like. Just for that I say, go on. But if I did come, the industry will immediately put me into the frog parts, and God, do I have to be the frog? I got O-Levels for God’s sake, do I have to be the frog? Can’t I be the butler?”
That’s not to say Gallienne is bereft of interesting roles in his homeland, his latest coming in Cezanne and I, where he plays the eponymous protagonist Paul Cezanne, an esteemed artist riddled with personal issues, who was a lifelong friend with author Emile Zola, played in this instance by Guillaume Canet – and it’s this very relationship with lays the foundations for this Daniéle Thompson endeavour to thrive off.
“I didn’t know anything about their friendship,” he admitted. “I didn’t know they were friends or that they knew each other from the age of 12. I discovered the whole thing,” he said.
“Daniele actually sent me the script asking me if I wanted to play the role of Zola and I said nope, but I would love to play the part of Cezanne. She was a bit shocked and surprised but I explained to her the reasons. First of all I was deeply touched by the part of Cezanne, and also because I had the feeling that playing Zola would be similar to playing Pierre Bergé in Yves Saint Laurent, being the one who endures, who stands in front of the manic depressive. I said this time I’d like to be the manic depressive.”
“Cezanne was a nightmare. He swore like no-one, and I wanted to play large, I enjoyed the idea of being large. People would say its theatrical, but it’s not theatrical it’s just large you idiot. Today everyone is so politically correct, and no-one stands out, especially in France it’s so Jacobean, if ever you stand out people say you’re pretentious. Fuck off, I’m not pretentious I’m just alive. You dull, dead thing. I like panache.”
Cezanne was, in short, a difficulty to be around – mostly down to the fact that he was an artist who knew of his self-worth, but felt others hadn’t yet cottoned on – proven by the fact his success came post-posthumously.
“It happens in films, some films become cult films which were disasters when they were released. Heaven’s Gate was one of the biggest disasters of Hollywood and now it’s a cult film. As an actor it’s more difficult, but James Cagney has been recognised as one of the best actors in the world, but I’m not sure he knew that when he was alive. A lot of directors have named him as one of the best, but only after his death.”
“Cezanne knew he was a genius, he knew that at the age of 20. He didn’t know how to achieve what he wanted to, and he got mad about that, but he knew he was. That’s interesting because you can’t mess around with him, he’s so sure of himself in a way, it’s quite strange to be confronted by someone who says, ‘yes, and?’”
“I do understand his frustration of being misunderstood, by his friends and contemporaries, and I understand the anger, I can feel the path, the evolution of how it must be to know that you are a genius but not knowing how to achieve it. He’s too modern, he’s modern before his time. Zola has the genius of being modern for his time, he invented naturalism, and Cezanne invented abstraction, but it was too early.”
It’s a role that has had a real effect on the actor too, as he explains that he now sees the world differently since embodying this troubled, nuanced character.
“I love the way Cezanne looks at things, and he made me look at things differently and feel things differently. I was only concerned by human beings before this film, and suddenly I started to be touched and moved by trees, and stones and minerals, things that didn’t touch me before,” Gallienne smiled.
“Now I know what he’s doing, and I didn’t know anything at first. I had a very bourgeois way of looking at paintings, very much so. If there was a tree I was just looking at the tree, now I can feel the wind.”
We had to ask too if there was a shorthand on set, with two lead actors who both go by the same first name – were nicknames employed?
“We thought of that, Daniele wanted to know if she should call one of us Cezanne and the other Zola, and finally, it’s very strange, but each time she spoke to one of us, we always knew who it was. It’s like in real life, you don’t always say the person’s name, it’s not like a television film where you always have to call your wife Sandy all the time so the audience knows who she is. So she didn’t have to call us really, we were there.”
One thing that has often intrigued us, is why, when Gallienne’s name appears in credits, it’s always followed by the words “La Comédie Francaise” – and he explained to us exactly why this is the case.
“It’s like the RSC, there’s an obligation by contract, we belong to the company. Our name and image belong to them, they lend us,” he said.
“We can’t do anything without being given permission. They say no, of course, but they wouldn’t say no for an artistic reason, but because they need you during that time and their schedule goes first. It’s a public service, and you can’t fuck around with the tax payer. I need it for the moment, it’s been 18 years now, I hope I’ll have the courage to leave after 25 years. Seven more years and I think I’ll leave, probably to work in England actually, I miss England a lot.”
But before he makes the move across the Channel, he first journeys to the States to teach. “I’m leaving in December to teach in the States at Princeton University, for six months – drama, obviously, not knitting. I might even write a film in English before that, there’s an idea I have that I think would be better in English than in French.”
It’s encouraging to know that actors around the world are still looking for roles to undertake in Britain, despite the nation’s recent political mishap.
“Brexit really is a shame,” he said solemnly. “It was a big shock, a very big shock. The first one, then came the others, let’s hope France doesn’t follow. Let’s hope.”
Cezanne and I is released in the UK on April 14th.